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An Avant-garde Theological Generation:
The Nouvelle Théologie and the French Crisis of Modernity

by jon kirwan
oxford, 336 pages, $94

Jon Kirwan presents the Nouvelle Théologie as a movement with three successive generations of leaders: those directly involved in the Dreyfus Affair and the Modernist Crisis (Maurice Blondel, Auguste Valensin, Joseph Huby); their apprentices and students, who fought in and were haunted by the Great War (Henri de Lubac and Gaston Fessard); and their younger confrères, who emerged in the shadow of the War (Jean Daniélou). In this story, the Nouvelle Théologie was fated to wrestle with and ultimately subjugate a very different movement, which Kirwan calls Neo-Scholasticism. It’s ironic, then, that the book reminded me of Charles Péguy’s assessment of ­Thomas ­Aquinas: “Un grand docteur considéré, célébré, consacré, dénombré. Enterré” (“A great doctor who has been considered, praised, numbered amongst the saints . . . and solemnly buried”). An Avant-garde Theological Generation made me feel that my beloved Nouvelle Théologie had been given decent and well-meaning funeral rites. There’s no way de Lubac or Yves Congar will fight their way out of the tomb after this. Unlike the protagonists of many a horror movie, they have been buried dead, not alive.

Kirwan chooses not to describe the opposition in any detail. He takes his idea of Neo-Scholasticism from a recent article by John Milbank, which contrasts the style of Radical Orthodoxy with that of Ralph ­McInerny, who was neither French nor active when the events in this book took place. Very few actual late-­nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century Neo-Scholastics appear in the book, and what these ghostly presences said or did to annoy the New Theologians is presented in a thin, schematic way. Criticism is not absent—the author doesn’t hero-worship his movement leaders. But he does not explain why the Neo-Scholastics feared that the New Theologians’ turn to experientialism threatened the objectivity and truth of Christian doctrine. There’s no way of telling what the stakes were, and so, no drama.

Blondel himself saw the stakes with great clarity. He had to steer between the Scylla of seminary manuals, which presented the truth as a list of propositions that had never changed or developed, and the ­Charybdis of Alfred Loisy’s idea that doctrine evolves in whatever direction history happens to go. Blondel tried to show where and how truth and history meet, without losing the truth amid the history (Loisy’s modernism) or the history amid the truth (Scholastic seminary textbooks). Kirwan quietly excludes Loisy, so his story gains clarity (Bad Scholastics versus Good Historical Thinkers) at the expense of acknowledging the Modernist errors the New Theologians strove to avoid.

The great issue for both the Neo-Scholastics and the New Theologians was the turn of Modernists like Loisy to subjectivity, experience, and history. Can one say that Christian doctrines are true, regardless of anyone’s feelings or historical situation? The Neo-­Scholastics said absolutely, yes. Pius X’s Pascendi Dominici Gregis anathematized Modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies,” and that was the end of it. The New Theologians differed: They thought that by an astute use of ­Augustine and his more “­experiential” tradition, and by drawing on nineteenth-century Romantic Catholic theologians such as Johann Adam Möhler, one could ­uncover what was objective and truth-­oriented within interior ­experience. For Loisy, experience is where subjectivity comes to an end (in me); for the Augustinians, ­experience is a means to the end of communicating with the realities outside of me. The self is not a closed box, like a fridge. One goes inward because interiority itself points outward. The New Theologians believed that volition and especially desire are human pointers toward God and supernatural truth. They foregrounded volition and desire in order to make common ground with their secular contemporaries, who were turning from the prosaic realism of the nineteenth century toward existentialism and symbolism. They attempted a kind of phenomenology or examination of conscience and consciousness. Phenomenology is not just “experientialism”: It is the analysis of the logical structure of conscience and consciousness.

No one could realize from reading this book that the ­Neo-Scholastics were not only the opponents of the New Theologians, but also their teachers. This is especially true of the relationship between ­Marie-Dominique Chenu and Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who supervised Chenu’s doctoral work on mystical contemplation. But all of the New Theologians were, to some extent, pupils and products of Baroque Thomists. Baroque Thomism is conceptualist: It figures it has refuted something by showing that it is logically unthinkable. The phenomenology of the New Theologians was a natural next step. It was not a complete revolution for theology to move in a couple of generations from the necessary logic of thinkability (Baroque Thomism) to proofs for God from the orientation of consciousness (Nouvelle Théologie).

The way to kill the Nouvelle Théologie is to treat it as a movement—a species of “left Catholicism,” as ­Kirwan calls it. The New Theologians are not dead, nor are their Scholastic interlocutors. My students read both, with gusto. They read individual works by individual authors, since movements don’t write good or bad books, only individual authors do. The movement is the husk the historian describes; the individual authors and their separate books contain the truth seized upon by the historically minded theologian or philosopher.

In a curious turn of phrase, Kirwan states that, following Blondel, the Nouvelle Théologie interpreted truth as the “conformity of mind and life, not the conformity of mind and reality.” Loisy would have agreed with that formulation, but not Blondel or any of the thinking New Theologians. The Scholastic and Thomistic definition of truth that Blondel rejected defines truth as the adequation or conformity of mind and things (rei): He preferred to define truth as the adequation of mind and life. But whether we call it “life” or “things,” Scholastics and New Theologians agreed that truth is the conformity of mind and reality. What is at stake in the whole debate is realism. The Schoolmen took a conceptualist route to reality, whilst their opponents tried to reach reality through a phenomenology of ­experience. Neither side took reality lightly, because neither side bought the Modernist idea that feelings ­override facts.

Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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